People deserve a choice with their mental health

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Mental health is a topic that it seems is difficult for Christians to discuss. Part of the reason, I think, is because it suffers from “we don’t talk about that” syndrome. Another part is, I think, that we really lack the vocabulary to discuss it accurately.

What do I mean by this?

Basically, Christianity teaches that humans are “psychosomatic” beings, that is, we have both a soul (psycho) and body (soma). Our mental health however doesn’t fit squarely within either of these categories because there is both a physical and spiritual component to it. It does involve various chemicals and hormones in your body, and you could indeed negatively affect these various processes by neglecting your physical health. However, it also affects your spiritual outlook, that is, basically, how you make sense of reality, derive meaning, determine right from wrong, etc. And if you neglect your spiritual health it too can adversely affect your mental health.

Your mental health then is basically the bridge between the spiritual and physical parts of your being. The problem is that there really is not any traditional language that reflects this understanding. The traditional Christian understanding seems to be that your mental health is part of your spiritual health, so if your spiritual health is good then your mental health should also be good.

This basically leads to overly spiritualizing mental health issues, like depression, and trying to treat them by basically “being more spiritual.” Now, if the cause was spiritual in nature this could very well treat whatever the issue is, but if the cause is physical it will probably do very little. Likewise, a purely physical approach through something like an anti-depressant will only be effective if the cause is purely physical. And even if the cause is primarily physical it is likely that some spiritual damage has happened that needs to be addressed. In any case there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution to mental health issues.

The question of how to deal with mental health issues was once again brought to the forefront with Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the team final due to her own mental health issues. Some were proud of Simone’s decision and for doing what was best for her. Others were disappointed and felt that she should have pushed through whatever issues she was having. It also brought up comparisons with Kerri Strug’s broken ankle vault in 1996. While I do not think it is really fair to compare these two incidents because the circumstances surrounding them are quite different, they are both, I think, instructive in showing the possible approaches we can take in dealing with mental health issues.

First, let me say that both of these women had obligations that they needed to fulfill: Olympic gymnastics competition. They were both on the U.S. Olympic team to represent the U.S. in the Olympic games. They did not have an obligation to win any sort of medal, but they did have an obligation to compete.

While most of us aren’t obligated to compete in athletic competition on the world stage, we do have obligations to family, friends, employers, and others that we need to fulfill. When we are not mentally 100% we really have two options when it comes to these obligations: 1) push through whatever the issue is, or 2) withdraw from those obligations to deal with whatever is ailing us. Pushing through is not necessarily always the best option, but neither is withdrawing. Sometimes it isn’t clear what the best option is, and sometimes hindsight reveals that you chose the wrong option.

Kerri Strug will represent (metaphorically) the choice to push through. While true that various people and factors might have pushed her to this decision, the reality is that this is not all that different from most situations in life; people have expectations of us and expect us to meet those expectations. Strug competed in an era where the expectation was that athletes would push through injuries and such and keep competing. To not do so was to invite a lot of negative criticism and more-or-less be viewed as weak. You can debate whether this attitude was right or wrong (in many cases it was wrong), but nevertheless it was the attitude. Strug was most likely aware of what people would think of her if she did not attempt a vault vs what people would think of her if she did attempt. She was probably also aware that she risked further injury if she attempted a vault. In the end she chose to vault.

How is this relevant to us?

We have to factor in many of the same things that Kerri did when making a decision whether or not to push through. For example, we might find ourselves in burnout. We might have been overextending ourselves for a while and are starting to experience the mental health consequences that come from such an action. We know we need to stop and step back, but we also know that we have been overextending ourselves for something we want. It might be getting a promotion, or advancing our career, or getting a degree, or even attempting to make a career change. So we find ourselves in a dilemma: do we push through and harm our own mental health, but accomplish our goal and invite the praise and admiration of others? Or do we pullback and take care of ourselves, not accomplish our goal, and risk inviting the disappointment and criticisms of others? The right choice isn’t always clear.

Simone Biles will represent (again, metaphorically) the choice to withdraw. She knew that she was not right and was not executing her moves correctly and she chose to withdraw to protect herself from injury. Her decision was informed, in part, from her previous experience at a domestic meet in 2013. She had already been in this situation before and was pulled out of it by her coach. This time she made the decision herself before her coach forcibly pulled her out. She pulled back and took care of herself, did not accomplish her goals, and also invited the criticism and disappointment of others.

I can tell you from personal experience that when you are not mentally right your performance suffers. And you can especially notice this performance dip when you are pushing yourself to your limits. It might indeed be something physical like a gymnastics competition, but it could also be academic performance. Withdrawing and giving yourself time to recover will yield better results in the long term, but in the short term you invite criticism and disappointment from others.

So what is the right decision? It’s hard to say.

When you’re in a position where you know you have reached your limit, but still have obligations to fulfill, the path that should be chosen isn’t always clear. Ultimately, I think, the “correct” decision is the one that person making it can live with. You might disagree with their decision (and maybe you have good reasons for doing so), but they are the ones that have to live with their decision.

I know in my seminary experience I definitely reached a point of burnout and experienced the mental health consequences that come with it. In the end I chose to push through and complete the program. I figured that in the long run the benefits of completing seminary far outweighed whatever short term consequences there might be from burnout. Plus, I was not comfortable living with the decision to withdraw from seminary. However, not everyone made the same choice when confronted with the same circumstances; some of them chose to withdraw from seminary. Some of those people came back eventually, but some did not. For me personally I feel as though I made the right decision.

Sometimes though we don’t get to make the decision. Sometimes the decision is made for us. I think these are unfortunate situations where the choice is made for us.

When I graduated seminary I was mentally and physical exhausted. I wanted at least 3 months of doing absolutely nothing. Then I wanted another 3 months of slowly easing back into working. I figured this would be enough for me to recover and then start moving towards my post-seminary plans. Plus, between living with my parents and what I had saved I had enough money to cover my expenses.

Unfortunately, I only got about 3 weeks and then through a bizarre series of events I was forced back into working and taking over IT duties (in a contract position) for a small company. I didn’t need the job because I had enough money. I certainly didn’t want the job because going back into IT support was not in any of my post-seminary plans. I also didn’t really have the energy to do the job in the first place. Nonetheless I was forced into doing it.

The results?

Devastating. My physical and mental health were pretty poor when I graduated. I pushed through them because I knew that the end was in sight and that once I was done I could finally rest and recover. All this did for me was drive both of them further into the ground. Eventually I was able to get the company into pretty good shape IT-wise, but not before my mental health was basically obliterated and my physical health wasn’t too far behind. I ultimately ended up gaining nearly 100lbs of stress weight (no that is not a typo) and had little to no motivation to do anything career wise. All my post-seminary plans? Ruined. It provided little to no benefit for me while carrying with it an enormous cost. It has now been 3 years since I graduated seminary and I still have yet to fully recover my physical and mental health (and lose the stress weight).

So the lesson in all of this? Please give people a choice when it comes to their mental health. They are the ones who know best what they are feeling and what their capabilities are. They are also the ones that will have to live with the consequences of their decision. Give them the choice and respect that choice. Do not force what you think is the right choice onto them.

Navigating mental health issues are usually complicated because it is the bridge between the physical and spiritual aspects of our being and it isn’t always clear where the source of the problems lies. There is also not a one-size-fits-all solution to them. One person’s decision to push through might be devastating to someone else. Likewise, someone’s decision to withdraw might be devastating to someone else. The best I think we can do is trust that the person made the right decision, even if we would have made a different one. But please, give them a choice.

Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

Tom Ferguson ThM 2018, Dallas Theological Seminary